Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it.  The term ‘film noir’ literally MEANS “black film” or “dark film.”

The reference, originated by those canny French, refers to those marvelous American-made thrillers which played in France after World War II, chocked full of deadly violence, greed and sexual obsession shared by petty crooks, desperate (but often strong-willed) women and sleazy private eyes. (The actual term, ‘film noir,’ is attributed to Italian-born French critic, Nino Frank, who is said to have come up with the description in 1946.)

But, we ask, if ‘film noir’ means ‘black film,’ how can such a title be shot in color?

Yet as early as 1945, when the genre was less than a half dozen years old, noir films were made not just in color but in vivid Technicolor.

Hello, everybody.  Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers back again while MRS. Norman Maine, both in black-and-white and living color, is now out searching for 3D. (At least she’s not shopping for a ‘gat.’)

A few days ago we reminisced about Lizabeth Scott, the virtual queen of film noir. We noted that she started at the top.  Star billing right under Robert Cummings for her debut in 1945’s You Came Along.

Then, star billing with heavyweights Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  And then, in only her third film, top billing over John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Mary Astor and Wendell Corey in 1947’s Desert Fury.  And in color.

Desert Fury is thought by many to be the first film noir shot in color.  But it’s not.  Two years before Fury, Twentieth Century Fox, who’d scored such a hit with director Otto Preminger’s Laura presented Gene Tierney in another noir classic, Leave Her to Heaven.

It was a brilliant piece of casting.  Tierney had always been somewhat mysterious. There was also no denying her stunning oscreen presence; she was gorgeous. (One of her admirers was a young John F. Kennedy.) She’d portrayed fallen women, sophisticated women, exotic beauties. But in this film she was downright evil.  Death followed pretty much her every move in this melodrama. (That’s her above with co-star Cornell Wilde.)

As Ellen Berent, a stylish newlywed given to psychotic jealousy, Tierney delivers in Leave Her To Heaven one of the most chilling performances ever seen in film noir.  It frightens Frank to watch it even today.

Concerned that her new husband’s crippled younger brother is interfering with her marriage, Tierney’s character invites the young man (Darryl Hickman) out for a swim in the lake.  From a rowboat, she observes him paddling into dangerously deep water. He soon is in trouble. She does nothing.

‘You’re not making very much progress, Danny,’ says Tierney without a trace of urgency or emotion, immovable in the rowboat.

As he sinks below the lake’s surface, struggling for his life, Ellen watches implacably from behind her fashionable sunglasses, writes Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. The scene is a lengthy one and is tough to watch.

Muller calls Tierney’s character the most deranged femme fatale ever.

In her memoirs, Tierney (who had more than her share of personal offscreen drama, subject for another blog) wrote that as much as any part she played onscreen, Ellen has meaning for me as a woman….She believed herself to be normal and worked at convincing her friends she was. Most emotionally disturbed people go through such a stage, the equivalent of an alcoholic hiding the bottle.

Concludes Muller: There was no precedent for the morbidity of these scenes (in ‘Leave Her To Heaven’), somehow made all the more malignant by the overripe lushness of (Oscar-winning) Leon Shamroy’s (Technicolor) cinematography.

 

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